It's late October, Hell is still open for business, and they haven't heard a thing from Kevin since April.
Castiel, either-not that Dean hasn't been trying to do something about that.
He hasn't prayed this much since Purgatory.
Sometime in July, he'd tried calling the old cell he'd given Castiel years ago.
He hadn't expected Castiel to answer-in all likelihood the phone was laying in thick mud somewhere at the bottom of the reservoir in Kansas-but, in the self destructive manner that he approached most of his problems,he'd sat on his desk and scrolled through his contacts to highlight Castiel's name anyway.
At that point, nearly four months had passed since he'd seen Castiel.
With one palm pressed against the desk's edge, he'd tapped the cell against his chin, telling himself this was pointless, pointless, pointless, though he still had every intention of calling.
It was a good thirty seconds before he worked up the nerve to press dial.
Not that he'd ever admit it, even to himself, but he just wanted to hear that familiar voice asking why he needed to state his name. He'd been counting on it; at least one little trace of Castiel that was still there. Still in reach.
Instead, he'd just heard a tinny tri-tone and a robotic voice telling him the number was out of service, and he'd slammed the phone down so hard that the screen had shattered.
He'd stared down at the phone, at the spider web-cracks that spread out on the glass, and wanted to kick himself for getting his hopes up at all.
In the library, a chair scraped back against the floor as Sam got to his feet, footsteps cautiously approaching down the hall.
Abruptly, Dean had shoved his door closed before he could try to ask him if he was okay, and sank back onto his bed, feeling worse than he had before he'd made the stupid, stupid, stupid decision to call.
He heard Sam stop outside, heard the shuffle of feet as his brother tried to decide whether or not to say anything, and presently his voice came muffled through the door.
"Are you okay?"
Dean looked up at the ceiling, ignoring the question. It wasn't the first time Sam had tried to talk to him about it, and it sure as hell wouldn't be the last, but Dean had no idea how to even articulate what was wrong.
Despite the numerous promises they had both made to keep no more secrets, tell no more lies, he kept on insisting that Sam was just projecting his touchy-feely bullshit onto him.
And it wasn't a lie. Not really.
It was an omission, at best, and not even much of one. Sam knew, and he knew that Dean knew he knew.
For all the knowing that was going around, neither of them had a clue what do do about it.
Because, yeah, he missed Castiel, but he knew it was more than that. Deeper than that. And if he couldn't even manage to name the reason in his own head, how in the hell was he supposed to say it out loud, let alone actually deal with it?
Dean heard the dull thud of Sam's foot kicking at the baseboard, a rhythmless tap-tap-tap that betrayed how worried he was.
"It's nearly eight," Sam said through the door, a little louder, "I'm gonna go pick up a pizza, okay?"
He'd cleared his throat, eyes still fixed on the broken phone.
Sam left, then, the sound of him making his way back up the hall and the jingle of keys echoing through the bunker until the front door slammed shut, leaving Dean alone in silence.
Just his thoughts and the weight in his gut to keep him company.
He knew he should just answer Sam. Because what it all boiled down to was that no, he wasn't okay, not by a long shot. He knew he should tell his brother that, at least, but he couldn't. He just couldn't.
And he hated it.
He hated that he couldn't get the words out, that he couldn't pin them down in his own head even if his life depended on it.
He hated the fact that whenever he heard the flap of wings his heart clenched in his chest like a fist, then sank when he saw that it was only a bird.
Mostly, he hated Castiel for leaving. For making him feel like this in the first place.
He still does, a little.
But with all that has happened between that night at Lucifer's crypt and now, that anger is getting harder to hold on to.
As much as he'd like to deny it, these days he's not so much angry as hurting.
At any rate, Dean figures they have bigger problems to deal with than the fact that he feels like crap.
Sam's sickness, in particular.
Since Kevin disappeared, along with the Demon tablet, Sam's condition has only worsened. The wet, hacking cough that forces him awake through the night has been slowly but steadily growing louder, more frequent, and while it started out as an occasional thing, easy to downplay or ignore, now it was an odd night if Dean didn't wake at 4am to the sound of Sam staggering into the bathroom to empty his lungs.
So Dean has been reading. There's not much else he can do, at this point in time-they're fresh out of knowledgeable allies, and with no desire to give Crowley an opportunity to kill them, summoning him for information is out of the question.
The bunker's library makes Bobby's collection look like the magazine stand in a Doctor's office, but after months of reading his way through the shelves, Dean still has no idea how to help Sam.
It's a little after midnight when he gets up from his seat, bleary-eyed and exhausted, and stretches his arms over his head to crack his neck.
Six hours wasted, he thinks, slamming the leather-bound book closed and adding it to the ever-growing pile of unhelpful texts on the far end of the table. Even so, he refuses to give up. He knows that there must be something in one of these books that will help them. There must be because there has to be.
He makes his way over to the turntable by the door and lifts the needle to render Ella Fitzgerald silent, before turning to look over the room. His eyes trail over the walls, the bookshelves, the doorway into the bathroom. They settle beside the yellowed lamp, unfocused, glazed.
He catches himself doing this more and more lately; just standing, staring, thinking of nothing and everything all at once.
As though he is hoping to find some answer in the bathroom tile or the wood grain of the research table.
After a few minutes, he lets out a breath and rubs a hand over his throat, offers up the quiet nightly prayer;
"Cas, if you can hear me... we could really use you down here. Door's always open."
There's no answer-there never is-but he still waits for one, gives it a moment before he walks down the hall, heading toward his room.
Sam is, from what Dean can tell, having a rare and much needed good night.
There has been no coughing for hours, and as he passes Sam's room he pushes the door open a little, just to be sure he's still there. Sam is asleep, propped up against three pillows, his mouth slightly open.
From here, Dean can hear the rattle of his breath.
Months ago, he convinced Sam to visit a doctor, just in case it was a coincidence-some strain of the flu that had happened upon him at the same time that he'd started the trials-but the doctor had found nothing.
All symptoms, no cause.
She'd wanted him to stay for further tests, but Sam had declined.
It had been enough proof that his condition was entirely supernatural in origin, and he'd wanted to get back to researching and hunting down Kevin so they could slam Hell's gates and get it over with.
That was in August.
Now, as the temperature has dropped with the onset of fall, his breathing is more labored than ever.
His eyelids flicker frantically as he dreams, and Dean is put in mind of a time when they were very young, sharing a motel bed out of necessity, when in a fever dream Sam had thrown out a punch at some imagined attacker and punched a sleeping Dean directly in the sternum.
His mouth quirks up the the memory; enough time has passed for the pain of being winded to have faded to the background to make way for the look on Sam's face when he woke up and realized what he'd done.
The lamp at Sam's bedside is still on, and under one hand on top of his sheets, an aged copy of Mary Shelley's The Last Man lays open and forgotten. Dean steps lightly into the room, slipping the book out from under his hand and putting it on the bedside table before turning out the light and shutting the door.
He'll be surprised if Sam makes it through the whole night without waking, but he walks down the hall as quietly as he can anyway, not wanting him to wake sooner than he has to.
His own room is at the far end, and by the time he gets there his tiredness is beginning to overtake him. He scrubs a hand over his eyes and yawns as he walks through his door-then stops dead in his tracks.
Standing by the desk, one hand resting on the back of the chair as he looks up with interest up at the weapons adorning the walls, is Castiel.
His back is turned, and his head tilts to one side as he notices the angel blade-his own, forced into Dean's hands in the crypt after he'd healed him, just in case Naomi got her claws back in-on display amongst the knives and guns above the bed.
Frozen in place in the doorway, Dean is overcome with equal parts relief that Cas has finally returned, anger that he left in the first place, and fear that he isn't real. That this is some kind of trick, or worse, that he is being controlled again. That he has been sent here to kill him.
For a moment, Dean doesn't even breathe. He just stares, fists clenched at his sides like he thinks he's going to have to throw a punch. He has the feeling that even if he wanted to move, he couldn't.
The sight of Castiel has turned his feet to lead, even his hands feel heavy. It's as though his body suddenly doesn't fit him right; as though he is simultaneously too big and too small to exist within it. His heart thunders, and if it's in protest or in rapture, he can't tell the difference.
Dark stains mark the fabric of Castiel's coat; dirt and scuffs and a tiny but unmistakable patch of dried blood on the right cuff.
Though he still hasn't moved, Castiel seems to sense him there. He starts talking before he's turned, his voice bouncing off the walls, cutting through the silence.
"Hello, Dean,"he says, and the sound spreads warm like whisky through Dean's chest, "Don't worry, I'm still... myself."
He looks tired, shadows beneath his eyes like he hasn't slept in days-though the thought is absurd, considering-but his gaze still bores into Dean, right down to the core of him, finally shaking loose that coiled-up tension that had rendered him immobile.
Dean swallows audibly and takes a step into the room, looking for any sign that this might not be real. He digs the sharp edge of his ring finger into the palm of his hand. The sharp sting of pain tells him that it's not a dream, at least.
Could still be a djinn, though, he thinks.
From his place by the desk, Castiel looks at him sadly, and it immediately fuels the lingering spark of anger in Dean's chest, brings it roaring back to life as easy as breathing.
"Where the hell have you been?"
The look of regret that sweeps over Castiel's face almost makes Dean feel guilty, but with months of unanswered prayers between them, he is finding it a little difficult to move past the anger now that it's returned.
"I had to hide the tablet."
"And, what, you couldn't take five minutes to let me know you were alive?"
"I am sorry, Dean. Truly. You know I would have returned sooner if I could."
Castiel looks back up at him, a knot in his brow.
"You're always saying how you'd like to stick around. I guess it's my own stupid fault that I keep believing you."
"Do I sound like I'm done?"
Deans voice is getting louder as he levels Castiel with a glare, and he pauses to close his door, dropping his voice so as not to wake Sam.
"You know it's been six months, right?" he asks, raising his eyebrows, his mouth pulling down at the edges as he speaks, voice short, clipped, "Last time I saw you, you nearly killed me, Cas."
With widened eyes, Castiel steps forward, voice pleading as he tries to explain.
"I wasn't myself. Dean, I would never have-"
"I know. I know that, Cas, but I... I told you..." Dean squeezed his eyes closed for a moment, sighing through clenched teeth, "and you just friggin' left. Again."
He lets out a shallow, humorless laugh and shakes his head, gaze now fixed on the floor in front of him.
"And I'm left here thinkin', maybe that Naomi bitch got to him again. Maybe he's hurt, or, or... or trapped, or dead. Or, you know what? Maybe he finally did it."
He still doesn't lift his eyes, just stares hard at the linoleum, and when he speaks again his voice is so quiet, so lost that Castiel barely hears him.
"Maybe he killed himself like he said he would."
Dean knows he shouldn't have mentioned it. It was a low blow, to take Castiel's pain and twist it around onto himself, but what he's feeling doesn't come from any place rational, and hell, he thinks, all is fair in love and war.
And that's what it is, he knows. He has known.
The feeling he's been trying not to name, because it hurts too much. But now that he's thought it, it's done. No turning back. He might not have to address it out loud, but it's there in his mind and in his chest, and there's no switching it off.
He looks at Castiel, at the guilt, the melancholy in his eyes, and swallows around the lump in his throat.
The air in the room feels dense, now.
It's as though the atmosphere itself is in distress, pressing cold and desperate against the walls, and Dean grits his teeth, trying to let the anger come back. Anger he can handle, but this heart-aching hurt that seems to devour him from within is too much. Much too much.
"No. Don't. Don't try to..." he trails off, crossing his arms over his chest as he finally looks up, "Do you have any idea what it was like, Cas? To pray to you every day and get nothing?"
"Dean, I'm sorry."
"Yeah, well maybe sorry ain't gonna cut it this time."
The words are forced, and anyone could see that he didn't mean it, but still Castiel stares at him, eyes wide, throat constricting, because it's what he expects. He backs away to sit down at the end of Dean's bed, suddenly unable to look Dean in the eye.
Dean sighs, rubbing the heel of his hand over his forehead, his eyes, and leans against the side of his desk.
"I just... I'm tired, Cas. Tired of being helpless. Sam's sick, Kevin's missing, you've been AWOL... Everything just keeps piling up and I... I can't do it. I'm just so damn tired, and I need-"
"I know. And I wish I could help you, Dean," Castiel still doesn't look up, his hands twitching uneasily against the comforter, "I know you need me to fix Sam, to find Kevin, but I can't. I'm weakened; whatever Naomi did to me, it left me-"
"You're an idiot."
Pushing himself back to standing, Dean looks down at Castiel, incredulous.
"You," he says, "You're an idiot."
"In what way?"
Dean moves to sit beside him, the bed creaking a little under the extra weight, and weighs his words before he speaks.
"You seriously think after everything that's happened that I only need you here to fix things for me?"
"Dammit, Cas, I know I can be an asshole sometimes but... I told you, man. I need you, not your mojo. I need you here because when you're not..."
He turned away, looking at his hands, the floor, anywhere but Castiel's face, speaking quietly.
"God, it sucks when you're not."
"I didn't think you'd want me here."
"Are you kidding me? How many times do I have to say it? What aren't you getting about this?"
Dean stares him down. Castiel looks back, miserably.
"Regardless. I'm no good to you, Dean."
"I don't care! I don't care how much of a goddamn mess you are, Cas. You're family and I want you to stay. I want you to want to stay."
"Why do you want me here? I've betrayed you, horribly. More than once."
"Well like it or not, I've forgiven you. Sam's forgiven you. You're the only one who hasn't."
"I can't," he shakes his head, looking down at his hands, folded on his lap, "I don't deserve to be here. I shouldn't be here."
A little alarm in the back of Dean's head tells him this is point when Castiel usually flies away. He'll decide he needs to do penance or fight or something, and disappear, out of reach and silent. So Dean racks his brain, searching for something to say to stop him before he has a chance to go. Because he has to. As pathetic as it makes him feel, he just can't take Castiel disappearing on him any more.
"If you really believe that," he asks, "then why did you come?"
Castiel looks taken aback by the question, his mouth falling open, eyes narrowing as he twists the edge of his coat between restless fingers.
"Cas,"Dean leans forward to catch his eye, "if you can't help me, and you don't need my help, then there's no reason for you to have come. But here you are. So why?"
Something like confusion flickers over Castiel's features, there and gone in the briefest moment as he analyzes his reasoning, and he looks back up at Dean with certainty.
"Because I missed you."
He says it with such conviction, and a slight smile as though he hadn't quite realized until this moment that the feeling had even been there. Something seizes up in Deans chest, warm and almost painful as he looks at Castiel.
"Well, same here."
Castiel lets out a breath, and he looks so broken that Dean can't help but pull him into a hug, his arms around his shoulders. At first, Castiel doesn't hug back-his hands sit limp at his sides like in Purgatory-and Dean huffs out an exasperated laugh by his ear.
"You know, it's less awkward if you hug back, Cas."
Tentatively, Castiel wraps his arms around Dean's waist, and Dean hugs him tighter.
"I'm sorry, Dean."
"No more apologies," he replies, Castiel's hair tickling against his cheek, "you're home now."
And as Castiel's hands press warm and firm against his back, Dean realizes that for the first time in months, he feels like he is, too.